Canada locks up Black immigrants, asylum seekers longer than other detainees: report

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International say Canada detains thousands of asylum seekers every year in often abusive conditions, where people of colour appear to be held for longer periods.

'I thought Canada was better than this,' one former detainee said

A guard stands outside the gates of an immigrant holding centre.
A guard stands outside the gates of an immigrant holding centre in Laval, Que., on Aug. 15, 2016. A new report from two prominent human rights organizations says that Canada detains thousands of asylum seekers every year, often in abusive conditions. (Graham Hughes/The Canadian Press)

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International say Canada detains thousands of asylum seekers every year in often abusive conditions where people of colour appear to be held for longer periods.

The two leading human rights organizations documented in a joint report how people in immigration detention, including those fleeing persecution and seeking protection in Canada, are regularly handcuffed, shackled and held with little to no contact with the outside world.

The secretary general of Amnesty International Canada said the country's abusive immigration detention system is in stark contrast to the rich diversity and the values of equality and justice that Canada is known for.

There should be no place in Canada for racism, cruelty and human rights violations against people coming to this country seeking safety and a better life, said Ketty Nivyabandi.

On its website, the Canada Border Services Agency (CBSA) said that individuals may be detained for a number of reasons, including if they have criminal convictions, if they lack "ties to the community," or if they may be a danger to the public or the security of Canada.

It said a national immigration detention framework introduced in 2016, with a five-year investment of $138 million, created a "better, fairer" system that supports the "humane and dignified treatment of individuals while protecting public safety."

Groups call on Canada to phase out its system

Nivyabandi said Canada should sign and ratify the United Nations' Optional Protocol to the Convention against Torture to further prevent violations and open detention sites for international inspection.

Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch are calling on the Canadian authorities to gradually end immigration detention in Canada, she added.

The 100-page report said people can be held for months or years on immigration-related grounds. Detainees who are from communities of colour, particularly Black detainees, appear to be held for longer periods, often in provincial jails.

The report said Canada locked up 8,825 people between the ages of 15 and 83, including 1,932 in provincial jails, between April 2019 and March 2020.

During the same period, 136 children were put in detention to avoid separating them from their detained parents, including 73 children under age six.

Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International found that Canada has held more than 300 immigration detainees for longer than a year since 2016.

'I felt like a dog'

The report includes 90 interviews with former immigration detainees and their relatives, mental health experts, academics, lawyers, civil society representatives and government officials. The names of most of the detainees were withheld to protect them from reprisals by immigration authorities, the report said.

"I didn't feel like a human in there: I felt like a dog. The guards would just open the latch to feed me," said one former detainee, who was held in an Ontario jail in 2020.

"When we mixed with Canadian inmates in jail, they asked us why we are there. They thought we were Taliban. We explained that we are fleeing the Taliban," said another former detainee, who was held in a Nova Scotia jail after coming to Canada in 2017.  "I chose Canada because I thought it was welcoming to refugees. I thought Canada was better than this."

The two organizations' researchers also reviewed relevant reports, UN documents, and unpublished government documents obtained through 112 access-to-information requests.

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Many asylum seekers are held in provincial jails with the regular jail population and are often subjected to solitary confinement, the report said, and those with psychosocial disabilities or mental health conditions experience discrimination.

Samer Muscati, associate disability rights director at Human Rights Watch, said Canada is one of the few countries in the global north where people seeking safety risk being locked up indefinitely.

Muscati said immigration authorities discriminate against people with disabilities by making the conditions of their detention harsher and the terms of their release more onerous than for many other detainees.

The two organizations found that many immigration detainees develop suicidal thoughts as they begin to lose hope that they will be released, and those fleeing traumatic experiences and persecution are particularly affected.

They said many former immigration detainees continue to live with the effects of psychosocial disabilities they developed during incarceration months and even years after their release.

The CBSA remains the only major law enforcement agency in Canada without independent civilian oversight, which repeatedly resulted in serious human rights violations in the context of immigration detention, the advocacy groups said.

COVID-19 presents 'a real opportunity'

"Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in March 2020, Canadian authorities have released immigration detainees at unprecedented rates," Muscati said.

"Instead of returning to business as usual as the pandemic comes under control in Canada, the government has a real opportunity to overhaul its immigration and refugee protection system to prioritize mental health and human rights."

For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.

A banner of upturned fists, with the words 'Being Black in Canada'.

With files from CBC's Emma Paling